Celtics legend, 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell, has died at the age of 88

Celtics legend and 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell passed away “peacefully” on Sunday at the age of 88.

Bill Russell, a stalwart of the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1950s and ’60s, the only NBA player to win 11 championships and the league’s first black head coach, died Sunday. He was 88.

Posting the news on social media, his family said Russell had died with his wife Jeannine by his side.

“Bill’s wife Jeannine and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. You may catch one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he happily explained the true story behind those moments,” the statement said. “And we hope that with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principle, each of us can find a new way to act or speak out. That would be a final and lasting win for our beloved #6.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell is “the greatest champion in all team sports.”

At 6-foot-10, Russell ushered in an era of dominant centers in the NBA that included fellow Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain, his rival in eight playoff and championship fights.

A dominant shot blocker, Russell was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times and earned All-Star honors 12 times in his 13-year career. Russell amassed 21,620 career rebounds (22.5 per game), which ranks only second to Chamberlain’s career mark, and was the season rebound leader four times. He posted 51 rebounds in one game and 49 in two other games, in addition to 12 straight seasons with at least 1,000 boards.

The NBA didn’t pursue blocked shots until the 1973-74 season, long after Russell’s retirement in 1969. But he’s widely regarded as one of the greatest rim protectors in league history, an agile and instinctive defender who brought a new level of athleticism to the NBA with his arrival in 1956.

Outside of court, Russell has been an outspoken advocate for the civil rights movement and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011.

William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. When he was young, his father, Charlie, moved the family across country to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he found work at a shipyard. Russell attended McClymonds High School in Oakland, where he was clumsy and had trouble finding time to play until his senior year. Even then, Russell attracted little college attention until he received a lone scholarship offer to play at the University of San Francisco.

There he teamed with future Celtics teammate KC Jones to lead San Francisco to 56 straight wins and NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. Russell was named the tournament’s most outstanding player of 1955, averaging 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds dons over three seasons.

As the 1956 draft drew near, Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach – already armed with a prolific offensive line-up featuring Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Ed Macauley – believed Russell’s defensive ability and rebounding ability were the ingredients his team lacked .

Auerbach would trade Macauley and small forward Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for second pick in the draft to select Russell.

Boston’s star contender couldn’t join the Celtics immediately because he was playing for the 1956 US Olympic team, which won a gold medal at the Melbourne Games in November. Russell finally came to Boston in December, and in 48 games the center averaged 19.6 rebounds (best in the NBA) and 14.7 points while helping Boston to its first championship.

With Russell at the helm, the Celtics won eight straight titles from 1959-66. For seven straight seasons, he averaged at least 23 rebounds per game with a team-first acumen while helping revolutionize the game on defense.

Russell’s immense skill and athleticism gave him the ability to help out teammates while still defending his man and protecting the rim. Boston took full advantage, often driving opponents to Russell. That, in turn, allowed the Celtics to play more aggressively on the fringes.

“To me, one of the most beautiful things I can see is a group of men coordinating their efforts toward a common goal, taking turns subordinating and asserting themselves to achieve real teamwork in action,” Russell once wrote. “I tried that, we all tried that with the Celtics. I think we succeeded.”

Former Celtics teammate Don Nelson agreed.

“There are two types of superstars,” Nelson told the Boston Herald. “You make yourself look good on the floor at the expense of the other guys. But there’s another guy who makes the players around him look better than they are and that’s the guy Russell was.”

These qualities would serve Russell well in 1966, when Auerbach retired to focus on general manager responsibilities. Russell agreed to take over as coach of the Celtics in April, becoming the first black head coach of a major American sport in the post-depression era.

“The most important factor is respect,” Russell said at the time. “In basketball, we respect a man for his ability, period. I have to succeed or fail in this job, not as a black man or white man or green man, but as a coach. I wasn’t offered the job because I was a Negro. I was offered it because Red thought I could do it.”

The last two of Russell’s 11 championships would come as player-coach.

In his first season in this mantle, Russell was tasked with stopping Chamberlain, who was leading the 76ers to 68 wins while wresting Boston’s dominance in the Eastern Division. Philadelphia defeated the Celtics 4-1 in the Eastern Division Finals, marking the first time in 10 years that Boston did not advance to the Finals.

The Celtics exacted revenge on the 76ers the following season, winning the Division Finals 4–3 before beating the Lakers 4–2 to win Russell’s first championship as player-coach. Russell and the Celtics captured the No. 11 title in his final season with another triumph over Jerry West, newly acquired Chamberlain and the Lakers. Russell averaged 19.3 rebounds in his final season.

The Celtics would retire his No. 6 jersey in 1972. Russell was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame three years later.

Russell stayed close to the game after retirement, serving in various capacities in the NBA, most recently as a coach with the Sacramento Kings in 1987-88.

The 11-time champion’s legacy was further cemented when former commissioner David Stern renamed the NBA Finals MVP award in Russell’s honor in 2009.

“Who better to name this prestigious award than one of the greatest players of all time and the ultimate champion,” Stern said at the time.

Russell recalled the honor as “one of my proudest moments in basketball because I realized early in my career that the only important statistic in basketball is the bottom line.”

In 2013, the city of Boston honored Russell by erecting a statue of him in City Hall Square.

Russell has become more visible in recent years. The day before the Staples Center was scheduled to host a memorial service for Kobe and Gianna Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in early 2020, Russell showed up for a Boston-Los Angeles game at the arena wearing the Laker star’s jersey despite years intense Rivalry between the franchises.

Russell is survived by his wife Jeannine Russell and three children from a previous marriage: daughter Karen Russell and sons William Jr. and Jacob.

* * *

Michael C. Wright is senior writer for NBA.com. You can email him herefind his archive here and keep following him Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs, or Turner Broadcasting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.